Friday, January 30, 2004

Dennis Foon used gibberish in his script for "New Kid" to illustrate a boy's confusion in a new world.

Trying to fit in

Luigui Mesina knows all too well what it is like being the "new kid." He moved to Hawaii last year from Mexico and started attending Waipahu High School.

"I was so confused," said Mesina, who was unable to speak English when he arrived.

'New Kid'

When: 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. tomorrow; Feb. 7 and 14

Where: Leeward Community College, 96-045 Ala Ike

Admission: $12; $6 children ages 18 and younger and seniors over 60; children under 2 are free, but a ticket is required

Call: 839-9885

Note: Recommended for ages 7 and up

Many of his classmates did not make life any easier for the 15-year-old stranger. "They were mean. They tried to tease me a lot," he said. "These Filipino boys used to call me names and throw paper balls at me."

Mesina's cousin Miroslava Foglesong can also relate to the difficulties of settling in a new country. In her college classes, she said her instructors sounded like the teachers in "Charlie Brown" TV specials.

"All I could hear is 'blah, blah, blah,'" she said. "For the first month, I didn't understand what anyone was saying. You really feel out of place and stupid ... like you don't fit in here."

Fortunately, things got better for both.

Mesina ignored the taunting and his situation improved. He'd noticed that many of the "kids causing trouble" were from different countries themselves. "They were learning English and had accents, just like I do."

Other kids did try to help, he said. After joining the cross-country team, he found a place he fit in. This was a nice switch following a year without a social life, he said.

He has since transferred to Leilehua High, learned English and made friends. He now spends his time at the beach, in theaters and at parties, like any other teen.

At Leilehua, he met a boy from Arizona who was the new outcast. "I remembered how it felt when no one talked to me. Now, we have formed a friendship. He is my best friend."

THE PLIGHT of the new kid is illuminated in Honolulu Theatre for Youth's presentation of Dennis Foon's "New Kid." His script uses gibberish to illustrate a boy's confusion in a new world as he learns to deal with new ways of speaking, dressing, eating and behaving. The other children must also confront their own prejudices as they learn to accept and finally befriend this new kid.

The play evolved from a workshop Foon conducted with a group of children in a Vancouver, Canada, elementary school.

"They were all from different countries and language groups (40 different languages are spoken at the school), and they shared their stories and experiences with me, answering the question: How did it feel to first come to a new country?" Foon said.

"Vancouver is a diverse city, with a huge Asian population from a multitude of countries, as well as other parts of the globe. English is spoken as a first language by less than 50 percent of our residents. Issues of language acquisition, racism and bullying are huge here," he said.

"Any person coming into a country experiences tremendous culture shock, a trauma intensified by reaction from people already resident in the country.

"I hoped to give audiences a better understanding and identification with the problems of coming to a country for the first time," he said.

For this reason, he didn't choose a specific country, but tried to focus on situations shared by most immigrants.

Nobody wants to be an outsider, said Margaret Jones, a Kailua Elementary School teacher. "We worry about what others think."

It's important to discuss these issues with children, she said. "We try to get them to empathize. It's a beautiful thing when they start to become compassionate toward another human being.

"The play seems to resonate with just about anyone who's experienced being 'the new kid.' New on the block or new in the country, that feeling of isolation -- and potential victimization -- is shared by many."

SHE HOPES THE production will raise awareness and open dialogue regarding racism and bullying in the schools. "If teachers ignore it, it only gets worse. You need to nip it in the bud."

Many times, hurt feelings are unintentional because youths simply tend to say what is on their minds, she said. "They are brutally honest," without grasping the fact that words can cause hurt feelings.

Very young children instinctively seek new friends and normally don't view newcomers as outsiders. But for older kids, it's a whole different ballgame, Jones said. "There is a lot of bullying because of differences."

Schools are beginning to work on curriculum and counseling that deals with such issues. Guidelines are set against acts of teasing or being cruel. Unfortunately, educators are also finding that students do need to stand up for themselves. "Findings indicate that (stopping the problem) works best if a victim confronts the bully," Jones said, while acknowledging, "There are always a few punks."

In one case, a military family withdrew their daughter from a Honolulu public school because "the kids picked on her so much that she would come home crying," she said. "Her mom pulled her out and started home schooling."

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